Violence in a climate of freedom

BY ASEP S. MUHTADI
Mar 29, 2012

Indonesia: The political reforms of 1998 have enabled conflicts to emerge and grow.

Under a 1965 law, the government does indeed have the power to prohibit or dissolve any organisation seen to be causing social unrest or vilifying religion. Some groups have argued that on this basis, the gubernatorial regulations relating to Ahmadiyah are entirely appropriate and not in conflict with national law. That type of backing has in turn strengthened the position of the regulations, and provided the anti-Ahmadiyah forces with a sense of legal justification for their actions. Meanwhile, the Indonesian Ahmadiyah Community (Jamaah Ahmadiyah Indonesia, JAI) regards itself as excluded from the process that led to the issuing of the regulations.

There are nevertheless people who regard the regulations targeting Ahmadiyah as infringements of basic human rights. For example the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) has declared the Banten Gubernatorial Regulation No. 5/2011 outlawing JAI and its activities and similar regional regulations to be legally flawed. In its view, these regulations override the national government’s position on Ahmadiyah, as declared in the 2008 Joint Ministerial Statement.

As such, the tragic events which took place in Cikeusik and other places in Indonesia cannot be seen in isolation from a situation that has encouraged and supported the actions of the anti-Ahmadiyah groups. This is of utmost concern. If it is not restrained, it has the potential to wreak havoc on a social order which in the past has proved flexible, harmonious and tolerant of difference.

Doctrinal differences

The conflict between the Ahmadiyah sect and other Islamic groups has its roots in different beliefs concerning the status of the Prophet Muhammad. These beliefs exert a strong influence on the way different Muslim groups involve themselves in society. One Cikeusik villager, Mahmud (not his real name), declared that he would risk everything to defend his religious beliefs. ‘There can be no give and take where belief is concerned,’ he says with conviction. ‘To me, the Prophet Muhammad is the final prophet, and neither Mirza Gulam Ahmad nor anyone else can succeed him.’

It is this doctrinal difference, among other things, that leads to some people to reject the Ahmadiyah sect and call for its members to repent and return to ‘true’ Islam. Before the Cikeusik tragedy occurred, a number of prominent local Islamic figures had urged the Ahmadiyah leaders to encourage their followers to merge with other Islamic groups in the village of Umbulan. Those who made use of the ustadz Parman’s house as a place for their daily religious observances were asked on several occasions to ‘return’ to the Islam practised by the rest of the local community.

In religious practice, just as in the exercise of other types of belief, ‘truth claims’ can have the effect of ‘imprisoning’ their adherents. The same applies to the Ahmadis. Their claims to the truth of their convictions are not easy to forego, nor can they easily embrace different beliefs, because people are more deeply attached to their beliefs than anything else they may possess. An Ahmadiyah follower may leave the community under social or political pressure, but this doesn’t mean he or she will simply be able to adopt another religion or set of beliefs. Examples of this can be found elsewhere in West Java: in the 1970s, followers of the agrarian spiritual movement known as Madrais, based in Cigugur, Kuningan, were pressured to move to a state-sanctioned religion. Its members converted to Islam or Catholicism, but later returned to their previous practices. The Ahmadiyah community in Cikeusik is a small minority, occupying only two houses in the village, but it maintains its own exclusive identity in its religious observances, including holding its own Friday prayers.

In search of a solution

In the context of doctrinal differences between adherents of different religions or belief systems, Cikeusik emerges as a straightforward example of the pressures surrounding religious freedom – and also religious harmony – in West Java. The potential for conflict always exists. It is held in check, or allowed to break out, by external factors. In this case, Indonesians’ failure to adapt to rapid liberalisation has been the instrumental external factor. This is how the Cikeusik tragedy should be interpreted.

For this reason, efforts to reinstate religious harmony should include an attempt to ‘soften’ the effects of doctrinal exclusivity. More open discussion of religious beliefs can help open the door to greater levels of tolerance between adherents of different faiths. Insights and understandings derived from local cultural values can serve as a framework for building more inclusive interpretations of religion, as long as they can be protected from outside interests whose goals are in conflict with local ideals of harmonious community life.

Prof Asep Seaful Muhtadi holds a chair in the Dakwah and Communications faculty of the Sunan Gunung Djati Islamic State University (UIN), Bandung. He visited Australia as a guest of Monash University and the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law.

This article was first published in Inside Indonesia.